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Hidden powers

Stephen Mumford interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Stephen Mumford is cool, calm and collected as he broods on the big issues in the metaphysics of science. He thinks Russell a pivotal figure in metaphysics and more significant in that area than Wittgenstein, thinks of Armstrong’s metaphysics as a beautiful whole, is a dispositionalist when thinking about the laws of nature, doesn’t want philosophy to go to war with physics, isn’t an X-phier, thinks powers are real in their own right, thinks intentionality has a naturalistic explanation in terms of the causal powers of agents and likes the idea that nature, including humans, have hidden powers which we might not have thought of yet. He’s also involved in the philosophy of sport and sees sports people as embodied empowered people expressing their freedom. This is all bodacious and hummin’, which makes his philosophical party most certainly boss. Chillin’.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? Was it always running through you that you might, or was it a surprise when you did?

Stephen Mumford: I remember the moment when I realised. It was in January 1989 during the final year of my Humanities degree. I was reading The Great Philosophers by Bryan Magee. I looked up and thought to myself “I want to be a philosopher”. I majored in history of ideas, which was at least partly philosophical. But it wasn’t until the last year that I really fell in love with philosophy. Prior to that, however, I see retrospectively that I was already a philosopher in the making. Around the age of nine, I would ponder on abstract questions that I now recognise as philosophical. I saw that no one in my family or school would take them seriously so I kept them to myself. I remember lying awake one night with the following worry. I had internal thoughts in my mind that no one else could know about. How could I know that other people had the same kind of internal thoughts going on in their heads? Might I be the only person in the world who had this inner experience? I had chanced upon the problem of other minds. I’d never heard of philosophy, though, and didn’t come from an academic family. The thought of doing it professionally never even occurred as an option. I went into the civil service after school for three years before taking my degree. Even after the realisation that I wanted to be a philosopher, it still seemed so far-fetched that I was too embarrassed to confess to anyone. Fortunately, it worked out in the end.

3:AM: You’re a metaphysics guy. You’ve just done a short guide. You say that it’s one of the most abstract areas of philosophy and if you don’t know about its aims and methods you’re likely to be intimidated. So before we get into all the metaphysics issues you wrestle with, can you say what metaphysics is and how we should do it in a way that isn’t too scary?

SM: Accounting for metaphysics – its nature, its methods and its validity – is itself a controversial issue. Opinions on it differ widely and because metaphysics comes under frequent attack we are often having to reflect on the practice and coming up with new ways to understand it. I certainly think that metaphysics is about the world but its interest in is the most abstract and general features. In metaphysics we wouldn’t talk about ordinary, everyday particular objects, for instance, but we would consider what it is to be a particular, what particularity consists in, and whether the world really does have particularity or whether it is largely illusory. In other words, we are not so interested in the concrete instances within a metaphysical category but we are interested in the category itself: what it would be, for instance. A lot of my work has been on causal powers, for instance. I wanted to understand in general and in the abstract what causal powers were: their features and whether they were reducible. I see this area as continuous with the rest of philosophy. In moral philosophy we want a very general account also. To be good an act must … (fill in theory here), so we are not naming particular good acts; we are saying in general what it would be to be a good act. Metaphysics is very like this except its subject matter tends to be about the structure and composition of the world itself: whether it contains particular, universals, facts, events, causes, laws, natural kinds, and so on. In sum, I take it to be the account of the most general features of the world and how they all fit together.

3:AM: Many people outside of philosophy might be surprised that philosophers still do metaphysics. They’ll have heard the story where on the one hand logical positivists and empiricists claimed you can’t do stuff without leaving your armchairs so metaphysics is meaningless and on the other hand language philosophers like Wittgenstein and Austin claiming metaphysics was just people taking their mistakes about language seriously, so they wonder what you’re up to. So what happened to that script? Is it Saul Kripke and David Lewis who got metaphysics back?

SM: You are right that metaphysics has faced a number of challenges, at least since Hume, through the logical positivists and ordinary language, and despite its revival there are still many who question its legitimacy. But I’ve usually found a statement by E. J. Lowe to be borne out: we are all metaphysicians whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not. I mainly work in an area called the metaphysics of science where, in simple terms, we look at what is required metaphysically for there to be science. What makes science possible? Much of science deals with the business of explanation and prediction. These have a point only if the world exhibits a degree of order: enough such that prediction has some point and tends to work out even if it is fallible. What is the metaphysical picture of how science can produce general claims that work in this way? What makes general a posteriori knowledge possible? Some combination of natural kinds, laws of nature, causation and powers are the main contenders for how our world is orderly enough for there to be a point in having science. Krike and Lewis certainly have played their part but within the areas I work I look to C. B. Martin, David Armstrong, and D. H. Mellor as reviving the subject matter. And on the topic of causal powers, Rom Harré was a significant figure, though he was more of a philosopher of science than a metaphysician. And given that our discipline is after or beyond physics, we really ought to be called metaphysicists. A physician practices medicine and we are not (solely) doing meta-medicine.

3:AM: Of course, the crude story I imputed to the astonished folk who thought metaphysics had been killed off is too crude. You edited a book on Bertrand Russell – supposedly the great empiricist metaphysics killer – just to show that the story was never right. Russell was a metaphysician is your claim. Can you explain this, and why was he misunderstood? As a metaphysician yourself, would you rank Russell above Wittgenstein as the great philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century, which would kind of invert the popular conception that Wittgenstein is the top man?

SM: My favourite philosophers tend not to be those I agree with but those with whom I can engage. All of Hume, Russell and Armstrong write so clearly, and set out their position so well, that it is easy to start thinking about their topics and see the points of contention. I think Russell has certainly been a pivotal figure in the history of metaphysics and I wanted to tell that story, which is largely ignored. Russell studied at a time when British philosophy was still dominated by neo-Hegelians with their monism and internal relatedness. The thought there could only be one particular of which everything was a part. The nature of a person, a chair or an apple was in part determined by the rest of the world so they could not properly be thought of as distinct from that whole.

But Russell rebelled against this metaphysics. Instead he offered pluralism. There were many discrete objects and the relations between them were external – they were not a part of the objects themselves. So the holism was rejected and monism along with it. This picture became associated with analytic philosophy and dominated for a century. It was already there in Hume’s philosophy – the distinct existences – and Armstrong follows it. It is increasingly been challenged, however, and I’m detecting a definite resurgence of interest in the neo-Hegelians – consider Jonathan Schaffer’s recent work, for instance. I certainly consider myself an analytic philosopher – though with a bigger interest than most in continental philosophy. But I am analytic in the sense of accepting its methods: clarity and argument. Analytic philosophy is also associated with Russell’s metaphysics of discreta – a plurality of discrete particulars – and this I have come to doubt, largely through my work on dispositions/powers. These are the main existences in my work but their nature and identity is fixed by what they are for: by something outside themselves. This leads to the kind of interconnected holistic world that Russell had rejected. Certainly in the area I work, Russell is more significant than Wittgenstein. I read a lot of Wittgenstein in my youth – everything that was published – but his influence on me faded rapidly. I think there are some real problems we can discuss in philosophy that are more than just linguistic confusions.

3:AM: You also wrote about another giant name, this time of the last half of the last century, David Armstrong. Why was he so significant for you?

SM: Without David Armstrong, I doubt I would have been a metaphysicist and, without finding my natural area, perhaps not even a philosopher. As a young Humanities graduate, I was still finding my way around. Armstrong’s books made metaphysics seem so clear and simple, though not simplistic. I was excited to understand a philosopher so easily and his subject matter appealed to me too.

I think of Armstrong’s metaphysics as a beautiful whole. It fits together so well. He has produced accounts of universals, laws, causes, minds, and so on, and it all forms a coherent package. It is, however, based on the sort of pluralism with contingent relations that Russell gave us and for that reason I don’t accept Armstrong’s philosophy. Nevertheless, I think of it as an excellent place for any budding philosopher to start. I wanted to convey the appeal of his work in that book and my criticisms were fairly restrained. The book had to be an unbiased account of Armstrong’s thought rather than Mumford attacking Armstrong. Among other things, I felt I owed him such a debt and the way in which I construct my own arguments in metaphysics owes a lot to Armstrong’s approach.

3:AM: One of your questions is about laws of nature. Scientists discover them all the time, but philosophers like you ask just what they are. So you ask whether they could exist even if nothing existed, whether they are substances or more like a pile of stones – collections of something but what? – and how can they govern that out of which they are constituted? So how do views about these laws break down into different theories? How do you think about laws of nature?

SM: Once I became a dispositionalist, I felt I had to tackle the metaphysics of laws. Dispositionalism is a revival of an old picture of reality – one found in Aquinas and Aristotle, for instance. It provides an account of the world-order, which I said was a precondition of science. Objects have natural, active dispositions or causal powers that tend to produce behavior of a predictable but also defeasible type. But opposed to this picture in metaphysics for a long time has been one in which the properties of the world are inert and inactive – Armstrong calls them categorical – but which do what they do because of the laws of nature. So it looks like two main contenders for the abstract account of the workings of nature: causal powers or categorical properties-plus-laws. In Laws in Nature I tried to examine in detail this properties-plus-laws view and I argued that it was ultimately unsustainable. Theories of law of nature, I said, fell into two main types. There were governing laws first. We often speak of the laws as governing the workings of nature in the same way laws of the land govern the behaviour of the citizens. I argued that there was no plausible account of how laws might govern in any strong sense. Armstrong had offered such an account, which I criticised. Often my opponents would protest that ‘governance’ wasn’t meant seriously. If it’s just a metaphor then it’s a very persistent one – consider the title of John Roberts’ book, for instance – but I think it is also a very misleading and damaging one.

The alternative is a non-governing conception of laws, such as in Hume’s regularity theory or Lewis’s best-systematisation of reality account. The problem then is that such ‘laws’ don’t do any metaphysical work. The world is just a pattern of events, where the ‘laws’ summarise or systematize that pattern. And clearly such ‘laws’ play no substantial role in the metaphysical picture. I then spent the last part of the book arguing that the world does not need laws. Real powers could deliver the requisite world order. And there was a kind of holism in there too. The powers get their nature and identity in relation to each other so they come in a complete package. I’d like to explore this holism, and what it means in relation to monism, in future work.

3:AM: At this point I wonder what physicists say about this kind of thinking. Physics guys have been a bit snarky about philosophers recently, asking why we should listen to them brooding from their armchairs. You think they should listen though don’t you? Your book with Rani Lill Anjum, Getting Causes From Powers starts with a great joke: ‘A team of fundamental physicists had produced a model for predicting the outcome of horse races. They were asked why they were not rich. ‘Ah,’ they explained: ‘You see, the model only works on two assumptions. One is that the horses are perfectly spherical; and the other is that they move without friction.’ It kind of gets to why you think they need to listen to philosophers doesn’t it?

SM: Yes, some notable physicists have said unflattering things about philosophy. But we don’t want to go to war with physics. Rani and I are keen that philosophy and science should work together. The latter provides the empirical detail but philosophy tells us the abstract and general truths. Ideally, a complete account of the world would be both scientifically and metaphysically satisfactory. We are involved in a current project – Causation in Science (CauSci) – that attempts to foster this interaction. But we have noticed that some philosophers give way to physics all too readily. Take the example set by Russell in his famous 1913 paper ‘On the Notion of Cause’. The philosophical notion tells is that causation is asymmetric. Causes produce their effects rather than vice versa. But physics, Russell tells us, consists in equations, which are symmetric and could be read either way. So while we are used to A causing B, in theory B could cause A. But why should we overturn such a central notion of our web of belief without examining the physics a bit more. Physics largely consists of a mathematical representation of reality: usually an artificial portion of reality in a model. Reality should not be mistaken for that mathematical representation. The world is not a number, nor an equation. And if the representation fails to include something central to our understanding of the world, perhaps we should asks the physicists to think again. Of course, the world could be counterintuitive after all. But we need all parties round the table when we decide what to accept and what not to accept.

3:AM: Is there a role for x-phi in your work, perhaps helping to draw out the common usages of terms like ‘laws of nature’ so we get clear where the metaphysical matters matter?

SM: I am not impressed by the basic methodology of x-phi, which seems to be a rejection of thousands of years of philosophical methodology. If a majority of people think absences can be causes, so what? Do all those people understand the issues involved when they say so? Do their intuitions fit with a systematic metaphysic? My greatest philosophical hero was Socrates. Sometimes philosophy is an antidote to common sense. It can challenge and educate our initial reactions to an issue. I don’t want to be too rude to x-phi, though, as some philosophers I very much respect take it seriously. But if you make philosophy into an empirical science, it ceases to be philosophy. I think of it more as a branch of psychology or sociology and it’s not for me.

3:AM: Now powers and dispositions are a big part of your work. So first of all, can you say what metaphysicians are going on about when they talk about powers and dispositions – are they the same thing? It sounds kind of spooky but most contemporary philosophers think they should be consistent with a Quinean, scientific outlook don’t they?

SM: Some try to draw distinctions between dispositions and powers, as well as capacities, abilities, propensities, and so on. Some subtle distinctions are indeed there: an ability is a disposition it is useful to have and a liability is a disposition it is useless to have, for instance. But my interest is primarily in the metaphysics of properties that seem to contain possibilities within them, which applies to this whole family of concepts. I like to use disposition or power as the general term and I draw no distinction between them. I agree that there is an initial feeling of spookiness to powers, especially for those brought up on an empiricist approach. But the problem, as you identify, is that the scientific outlook soon suggests that there are real dispositions in the physical world. The ordinary properties or particulars seem to behave in a dispositional way, such as fragility and solubility. And if we get down to the fundamental properties of the subatomic level, even spin, charge and mass, look to be dispositional in character. Charge, for instance, looks like a disposition to repel and attract other things with charge. So this is why the logical positivists immediately had a problem with dispositions. They were working with an ontology that was not particularly amenable to dispositional properties and yet they also wanted science to inform us of the detailed facts. Unfortunately, science seemed to challenge many of their philosophical assumptions about the nature of the world. Carnap, for example, had to spend much time worrying about dispositions and how he could explain them away in his Reduction Sentences.

3:AM: You defended a realist view of powers, defending it in your early book Dispositions? This is a view people like Mellor and Martin defended too. So this view argues that they are bona fide and so goes up against Humeans who will say that they are nothing at all. I guess quite a few readers will be happy with saying that, for instance, ‘this vase is fragile’ means ‘if I hit it with my hammer it will shatter.’ Why doesn’t that Humean stance, which David Lewis defended didn’t he, strike you as being good enough?

SM: The logical positivists, and others who followed much later, such as Ryle, did not want to allow that dispositions were real in their own right: that there really could be a power to dissolve that resided in a soluble substance, for instance. The main response, following on from Carnap’s Reduction Sentences, was to offer a conditional analysis. The idea was that if we could analyse each disposition ascription into a conditional whose antecedent and consequent terms contain only categorical or occurrent terms – which basically meant just non-dispositional terms – then we would have reduced away the disposition. Thus, instead of referring to a real dispositional property, when we say that something is fragile we just mean ‘if this is dropped, it will break’, where dropped and broken are perfectly occurrent terms, open to empirical confirmation. The stakes are high, here. If a conditional analysis works, there is no need for real dispositional properties in our metaphysics. I think some remaining defenders of the conditional analysis really don’t have a sense of what is at issue here because the approach has to be located within the long history of empiricist and logical positivist approaches to the problem.

I am more convinced now than ever that no conditional analysis can successfully reduce dispositions away to non-dispositional properties. A number of clever problem-cases were raised by the friends of dispositions: masks, finks and antidotes, for example. A mask is something that hides the disposition so that it doesn’t manifest even when appropriately tested. Thus, if you want to protect a fragile object you cover it in bubble-wrap so that if it is dropped it doesn’t break. Hence, the thing is fragile even though it doesn’t break when dropped, so the conditional analysis looks false. There is a lengthy literature on such cases, which at times is tedious. It is questioned whether something in bubble-wrap really is fragile after all, in which case it’s not a counterexample to the conditional analysis. I think that if it were no longer fragile then the bubble-wrap would be serving no purpose, which it clearly is. But the reason I’ve become convinced that no possible conditional analysis could work, and what allows for the possibility of mask, fink and antidote cases, is that dispositions involve what in Getting Causes from Powers we call the dispositional modality. Dispositions always tend, and no more than tend, towards their manifestations in any situation. No matter how much detail you put into any antecedent conditions, they will never guarantee their consequent manifestations, though they definitely will tend towards them to a greater or lesser degree. Causes produce their effects but without necessitating them. This is a philosophy of nature that Aquinas took from Aristotle. Hume started talking of powers as being things that would necessitate their outcomes and this understanding – I would say misunderstanding – has largely stayed with us ever since, even among many who are realists about powers.

3:AM: Now George Molnar took the realist view in a certain way in the book you edited because of his untimely death. He defended the directedness, independence, actuality, intrinsicality and objectivity of powers. And by directedness he meant that powers existed independently of the existence of its manifestation. Can you explain how this works?

SM: I was very glad to be involved in finishing George Molnar’s book when he died just before its completion. His work has much to offer the debate even though I think that on this issue he is ultimately wrong. Each disposition is evidently ‘for’ a manifestation of some kind. Fragility is ‘for’ breaking, elasticity is ‘for’ bending, gravitational mass is ‘for’ attracting, and so on. Molnar takes this very seriously. He thinks powers are directed towards their manifestations. He thus revises the Brentano thesis. Intentionality is not the mark of the mental but, rather, the mark of the dispositional (some mental phenomena can be intentional insofar as they are dispositional). In Getting Causes from Powers, however, we argue for a different explanation. As I said above, we argue that there is a dispositional modality, between pure necessity and pure contingency, which stands between the power and its manifestation. The reason that there are similarities between intentionality and dispositions is because intentionality also exhibits the dispositional modality (as, we think, does normativity). A desire for candy, for example, does not necessitate getting candy but it has a more than purely contingent connection with getting candy. And why should intentionality exhibit the dispositional modality? Our answer would be that intentionality should ultimately have a naturalistic explanation in terms of the causal powers of agents. If thought is an ability of persons then we should expect it to involve the dispositional modality, like any other power.

3:AM: You’re interested in how powers and causes relate. So this is an issue that puts in the league of awesome philosophical giants like Whitehead, JS Mill, Aquinas and Aristotle, which is pretty cool, must be a bit daunting and shows bravery. Now there’s a view that thinks there are powers and to cause them to manifest themselves there needs to be stimulation. Philosophers like Stephen Barker and Alexander Bird take this stimulus response approach I guess. But you dislike this theory because it makes powers lame. You have four problems with this general approach don’t you?

SM: There are so many books on causation that we figured if we were going to unleash another on the world then we had better say something interesting and different. We didn’t want to go through all the Billy and Suzy rock-throwing cases or construct ever-more elaborate neuron diagrams. But we weren’t being different just for the sake of it either. We became convinced that there had been some persistent philosophical misconceptions about causation, going back at least to Hume. Part of the problem, however, had been the failure to fully grasp an outright realism about powers. As I said above, there are reasons why I think the conditional analysis fails. There is also an ontological mirror of the conditional analysis, which is the conceptualization of powers as constructions from stimulus-manifestation pairs. But I think this kind of approach jars with any worthwhile realism about powers. For a start, it assumes that they are inert and intrinsically impotent. Alone, they can’t do anything. They stand in need of a stimulus. But if the powers are passive in that way, and the stimulus is what comes and actively kick-starts them, then it sounds like the stimuli are the real powers. It’s those things we should be interested in. They are the powers. But, then again, if you have the stimulus-response model, then in order to do anything, those stimuli will need stimulating. You can see where this will go: a regress looms. And it also suggests a picture in which the world is divided into active stimuli and passive dispositions. I take all properties to be powerful so want no such qualitative difference. I reject the dispositional-categorical as an ontological division in types of property.

3:AM: So you like an alternative picture that is associated with Charlie Martin called the mutual manifestation model. This is the idea that replaces stimulus response models with one that thinks of causation and powers in terms of equal partnership of powers. Can you say how this model was originally set up and give an example of how it supposedly works before we look at what you do to it?

SM: In his book – another that was completed after the authors death, by John Heil – Martin suggests a new model of causation in which the manifestation occurs when all the right mutual manifestation partners come together. The sugar and the liquid, for instance, are more or less equal partners in the production of a sweet solution. We don’t want to say in any serious sense that one is the stimulus and the other is the disposition: that would just depend on your point of view. The soluble sugar cube and the solvent liquid work together and both undergo a continuous change, if left uninterrupted. This also suggests that the process begins as soon as the partners are all together; hence there is no temporal gap between cause (the conjoined partners) and effect. The process begins immediately even if only gradually. In particular, the partners don’t have to wait for anything else. They need no additional catalyst, for example. That would just be a further partner in the mutual manifestation partnership, without which we would have an incomplete partnership (and a partnership can involve any number of partners). This still doesn’t mean that powers necessitate their effects – even a combined resultant power. There is always the possibility of adding a further factor to the partnership that thwarts or masks the effect.

3:AM: Now you think that this fails to be a model of causation. It’s just mereology. So can you say what the problem with Martin’s model is for you and then how you propose to mend it so we don’t fall back into the stimulus response model?

SM: Martin presents the example too briefly in his book but it can be developed more satisfactorily. He uses the analogy of two triangles coming together to form a square. He tells us not to think of causation but to think in this way instead. But, yes, what we have then looks like mereology: the triangles and square stand in a part-whole relation. What we think Martin needs is precisely the causation he told us not to think of. In the first place, when mutual manifestation partners come together, even if they begin their effect instantly, it often takes time to develop fully. Effects are not just the sum of constituent powers in the way a square could just be two triangles appropriately arranged. It takes time for the sugar to be fully dissolved. In the second place, Martin’s model assumes that all composition of causes is additive, and thus linear. But we know of cases where causation works in a non-linear fashion. If you take two different drugs to lower blood-pressure, for instance, then while they might lower it more than if you’d just taken one alone, it’s not likely that they will lower it exactly twice as much as one of the drugs alone. So, to adapt Martin’s case, the area of the square could be greater or lesser than the sum of the areas of the constituent triangles. We call this view compositional pluralism because addition is just one of the many functions by which causes can compose. And, third, we want a view of causation that allows at least the possibility of some form of emergentism, which means that the two triangles could, when brought together, actually form a circle instead of a square, if there is genuine novelty produced within causation. We don’t want to rule that out yet. So we think that, contrary to Martin’s view, we need to understand mutual manifestation to be causation instead of his way.

3:AM: When you oppose the stimulus response model it’s because you dislike the metaphysical picture of nature that it implies – the idea that nature is passive, for example, and the idea that perhaps nature has powers we haven’t even dreamed of yet. Is this a way in which your metaphysical arguments end up with perhaps political and existential implications that might not be obvious at first and might not be salient to the direct arguments but nevertheless are there?

SM: I like very much the idea that nature – including human beings – might have hidden powers, some of which have not yet even been conceived. My view of technology is that it is all about the discovery and then utilisation of hitherto unknown powers. Our ancestors would not have known, for instance, that this black sticky oil from the ground could have the power to burn and, in due course, propel motor cars. Nor could they have conceived of it making plastics. Technology is about teasing out the hidden possibilities within things, which is a matter of finding the right mutual manifestation partners. There may be cures for cancer or AIDS, for instance, which sit waiting our discovery. And similarly, there may be undeveloped potential within people. I see the role of education as empowering people: developing their potential and also giving people new abilities. And the more one is empowered, the more opportunities are open to one.

3:AM: Is there not something strange about making metaphysics fit with a Quinean scientific methodology given that it seems wedded to a stimulus-response metaphysics that you reject? Why shouldn’t a metaphysics drew on alternatives to scientific methodology? And if there are no principled constraints binding metaphysics to science, doesn’t that rather undermine its credibility?

SM: An idea of Quine’s that I like very much is the web of belief. I suspect that our metaphysical views are pretty near the center of that web: a belief that objects exist unperceived, for instance. But they can be revised if they don’t sit well with the rest of the web. Alternately, we might reject the scientific theories instead. In that case, I would say that there are some constraints binding science and metaphysics but they are not absolutely strict. And if there is a conflict, then it can be a tussle over which to reject. Russell’s assumption in his 1913 paper was that metaphysics should give way and allow science the final say. But follow the image provide by Quine (and Ullian), there’s at least the possibility that we ask the physicists to go away and come back with a better representation: one that reflects a metaphysical belief that is central in our web of belief.

3:AM: You’re also a well-entrenched figure in the philosophy of sport (despite Nottingham Forest). With the Olympics and the Euro Football last year, brooding on whether we should enjoy sport for its aesthetics or for the winners are good questions to be asking. Is watching sport inferior to playing it, and how should we do it?

SM: I became interested in philosophy of sport nearly ten years ago. For whatever reason, I was more interested in the philosophical issues around watching sport than around playing it (was it because as a young philosopher in the making I wasn’t very sporty myself?). This went against the grain. Most philosophy of sport when I started was around playing: issues of competition and how games should be conceived, for instance. Spectatorship seemed largely left to sociologists and historians of sports. But I wondered whether watching sport was at all philosophically edifying or just a complete waste of time. Were we just passive observers or could we be enhanced through watching sport? I decided on the latter. Sport has at least the potential to improve our aesthetic and ethical sensibilities. It also can tell us something profound about the human condition: we see (wait for it …) embodied and empowered agents expressing their freedom. They gain pleasure in exhibiting their mental and physical powers to their maximum extent, and we gain pleasure in seeing them so do. I don’t know if this makes watching sport superior to the playing of it. I guess that depends. Playing sport can have instrumental value – improving fitness – but at the professional level it often involves doing very unhealthy things in order to achieve the optimum performance in the short term.

3:AM: I’ve often thought that sports commentaries don’t engage with a range of possibilities that are open to them. TV and radio producers seem to have a fixed view of the audiences as being a certain type watching in pretty much the same way. Should we be asking these producers to change their assumptions? What would you suggest?

SM: Yes. A good commentator should be able to ignite the viewer’s aesthetic imagination. In many ways they can this. The commentary should add to the excitement. But very often it’s banal. There seems to be an assumption that the sports fan wouldn’t take seriously an intelligent commentary but sports fans are just like anyone else, complete with intellectual needs. I should add that in the UK I think we do have some very good commentators.

3:AM: So when you’re not being metaphysical and watching sports, are there any books, films or music that you’ve found helpful or inspirational outside of philosophy?

SM: Oh yes. I love music and films. They seem to be the only things that can make me cry. But they can also be inspirational. When I hear music that is beautifully crafted it makes me want to write a book that has high artistic standards. I love writing. It’s my aesthetic outlet. I don’t get much chance to read fiction, however, which I regret. I love Dickens but I’m saving him for my retirement.

3:AM: And finally, for the metaphysical sports audience that defines the 3:AM readership, what books (other than your own which we’ll be dashing out to read straight after this) would you recommend for us to read?

SM: I recommend the classics. A few years ago I read the whole of Hume’s Treatise and I loved it. It is beautifully written and there is a hidden joke on almost every page. I was laughing out loud at times while reading it on trains and planes. When people saw it was the Treatise making me laugh so much, they must have thought me mad. Even though I disagreed with much of it, I felt I benefitted a lot from engaging directly with Hume. I’d like to have read all the great classics of philosophy before I die. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is also surprisingly clear, contrary to popular myth.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 11th, 2013.